Recently our small church decided to take on the controversial topic of homosexuality. Not in spite of the controversy, but because of it.
Now I realize that many of you will read that and think that we are intentionally trying to be divisive and unloving but the reality is that our goals are quite the opposite. Our aim in discussing this topic is to learn how to handle conflict in a more Christlike manner. How to maintain unity in the midst of sharp differences without compromising our deeply held beliefs but, at the same time, while still loving each other and maintaining a humble and teachable spirit.
Why risk the hurt, pain, sorrow, division, etc.?
I’ve been party to a number of debates that have gone sour. Many that have gone past the point of not only wounding feelings and damaging long-held relationships to outright hatred. I’ve been party to some debates that have ended up putting a wedge in otherwise deep and intimate relationships (or so I thought) to the point where I haven’t talked to them in years (except for the occasional sniping).
I share that to let you know that I take very seriously the risks and dangers inherent in what I’m proposing. I understand that we are playing with fire and that some will get burned. However, as Augustine mentions in his famous “City of God” in reference to those who don’t wish to examine Christianity for fear of being converted (and I’ll paraphrase): Standing far off from the sun not only keeps you from getting sunburned, but it also prevents you from enjoying it’s warmth.
Intimacy comes with risks.
The question we have to ask ourselves is whether we are content to remain at a superficial level or if we want to risk going deeper and get to know each other in a more meaningful sense.
This is a serious question and a scary proposition for many people because it also means that, while we get to know others we are likely to find out they are far more broken than we have bargained for.
We will also find out that we are far less saintly than we like to imagine.
Love is messy.
How do we plan on accomplishing this?
If our chief concern were mere unity and superficial agreement, then we certainly would not take this path. However our goal is truth, whom we also believe to be a person in the form of Jesus Christ.1
In this respect, I believe that our only hope of surviving, and indeed thriving, is to keep our eyes firmly fixed on three main truths found in Scripture when it comes to controversy.
Mind the logs in our eyes
Jesus told us that before we take on the responsibility2 of correcting others we ought to first examine ourselves. Likewise we are told by James that our own evil desires are the source of the divisions among us (not the topic!) and that accordingly our tongues are among the greatest weapons of mass destruction known to man.
In our quest for truth we have to keep our finiteness in mind and remain teachable, no matter how convinced we are that we are right.
One seminary professor put it to his students this way: What would it take to convince you to walk away from the faith? If you answer is nothing then you should reexamine Scripture because yours is not the faith of the Bible.
Put simply, people who can never be persuaded or shown wrong are incapable of intimacy and do not value truth.
Stick to the facts
Since we are not omniscient we have no insight into the intentions of others and, as such, all of our arguments must be constrained to the realm of facts, reason, and evidence.
Not having either a theological degree or a computer science degree (my other love) I’ve learned to rely on facts and well formed arguments when making my case. Since I can’t use the “well this is how I was taught to do it in/by …” approach (which I’ve also found doesn’t work even if you insert the most prestigious names), I have to essentially rely upon tactics that are meant to persuade, as opposed to force, the other person to convince them of my position on any given topic. What I’ve also found using this approach is that quite often the other person will have something I hadn’t considered to bring to the table which, while derailing me from my original point for a time, adds to both of our understandings rather than subtracting from it.
So if we are to have any hope of getting to and understanding the truth (which is what we should be seeking after as of paramount importance) we need to exhaustively study any subject we hope to engage in3 and we need to limit our comments and questions to the subject at hand4.
Above all else, love
This is far easier said than done, of course, but our whole goal of intentionally discussing such a controversial issue is to strengthen and expand the free-flow of communication between us. After all, if we claim to be the members of the same body we should understand that our head, that is Christ, was extremely divisive in his day when it came to the ruling religious majority but yet he managed to do so in a spirit of truth and love. Consequently, Ephesians 4:15 tells us that we should “speak the truth in love”.
Coupled with the description in 1 Corinthians 13 of what love is, and using the example Jesus himself set, we should weigh our comments and arguments against what we know of those we are talking with. This has the dual benefit of also helping us more effectively engage the world around us (that is, people in the world around us) by teaching us to temper the truth we are convicted of from our diligent study.
The road marked out ahead of us is not going to be easy, and we covet any and all prayers on our behalf as we walk through this minefield. However we also know the pearl we hope to gain, that is real and genuine community centered on the truth with a willingness and ability to engage each other and grow spiritually, is certainly worth the cost.
Ultimately the charge to pick up our crosses and engage in explosive (and often hurtful) subjects can be stated this way:
Jesus didn’t leave us where he found us, so the least we can do for our brethren is not to leave them the where we find them.
- Incidentally, even non-christians have noted the inconstancy and illogical way in which passages such as Titus 3:10 have frequently been used to quell “divisive people” rather than taking these as an opportunity for genuine growth. [↩]
- Notice I said “before”, not “if”. One of the greatest misconceptions in the Christian community today is that we are not supposed to judge. Quite the opposite. We are to judge well according to John 7:24. [↩]
- This also means we should have a broad range of subjects we can speak intelligently on if we hope to do anything more than remain silent in most conversations that happen around us. Being learned in several subjects also has the added benefit of making us better and more interesting conversationalists which, surprisingly, makes people more interested in talking with us. This is a large part of the answer to overcoming the common fear of sharing our faith with others. [↩]
- The funny thing about rabbit trails is that they never, or very rarely, lead you anywhere productive. I think Paul would agree that an ordered meeting would include a clear discussion on one topic at a time so that everyone can keep up and participate. [↩]